CAIRO (CNN) — A day after ferocious clashes between protesters and security forces left more than 500 people dead, Egyptian officials tried to defend their government’s actions — insisting that troops fired only in self-defense and weren’t even responsible for many of the deaths.
The violence stirred widespread international condemnation, including from some longtime Egyptian allies, amid criticism that those who weeks ago had overthrown President Mohamed Morsy had gone too far in going after his supporters in Cairo and elsewhere.
The Egyptian Health Ministry said at least 525 people died and more than 3,700 were injured Wednesday in clashes that began when security forces moved in to break up protesters demonstrating in support of Morsy. Among the dead were 43 police officers, the interior ministry said. Muslim Brotherhood officials say the death toll among protesters is higher.
U.N. Security Council representatives was set to meet — at the request of France, Great Britain and Australia — Thursday evening at the world body’s New York headquarters to discuss the crisis, a U.N. spokesperson said.
There is no disputing the violence was the worst since the 2011 revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Yet Egypt’s ambassador to Great Britain said his government’s forces had done what it needed to do, and done it responsibly, blaming protesters for inciting and carrying out the violence.
“What the Egyptian government did, and the police, is an obligation from any state towards its people, to defend its interests and to protect them,” said Ambassador Ashraf Elkholy. “And 48 days of occupying an area in Egypt, stopping civilians going to their homes or their businesses or their schools, is unaccepted in any community.”
The Muslim Brotherhood — the Islamist group that Morsy had led and the target of the crackdown — had a very different take. Its officials have characterized Wednesday’s action as a massacre and vowed to continue protests until Morsy is restored to power.
“The protests never stopped throughout the night and we will continue our sit-ins and demonstrations all over the country until democracy and the legitimate rule are restored in Egypt,” Muslim Brotherhood official Essam Elerian said Thursday.
True to Elerian’s word, pro-Morsy protesters kept up the pressure on the interim government, staging a sit-in in Nasr City, blocking a road near the country’s iconic pyramids and storming a government building in Giza, according to state media. Authorities evacuated the building, which caught on fire.
Four people also died Thursday in clashes between Muslim Brotherhood members and residents of the city, state-run Nile TV said.
State-run TV also said Morsy supporters were attacking police stations, hospitals and government buildings in areas outside Cairo, despite a state of emergency declared Wednesday by the military-backed interim government that limits public gatherings and gives more power to security forces to make arrests.
Adding to the tension, the Interior Ministry announced that police would be using live ammunition to fend off any further attacks on government buildings or security forces. That announcement comes ahead of anti-government protests Friday that raise the possibility of more violence.
The bloodshed that’s already occurred has brought criticism from countries around the world, threatening to to further destabilize Egypt’s already precarious economy and political situation.
On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama strongly condemned the bloodshed, saying the government chose violence and arbitrary arrests over an opportunity to resolve its crisis through peaceful dialogue.
“The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces,” Obama said. “We deplore violence against civilians.”
He announced the cancellation of joint U.S.-Egyptian military training exercises scheduled for next month, and warned that the traditional cooperation between the two nations “cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said that canceling the exercise was a “prudent step we believe to signal the United States’ strong objection to recent events including violence against civilians.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also pleaded for calm, and for an investigation into Wednesday’s violence.
“The number of people killed or injured, even according to the government’s figures, point to an excessive, even extreme, use of force against demonstrators,” she said. “There must be an independent, impartial, effective and credible investigation of the conduct of the security forces. Anyone found guilty of wrongdoing should be held to account.”
Among other reactions, China urged restraint. Germany, Italy, France and other nations summoned Egypt’s ambassadors to their nations to express dismay over the violence. Denmark suspended economic aid to the country.
The United States, which provides about $1.6 billion in annual aid to Egypt, continues to review such programs “in all forms,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday.
Many other nations were also sharply critical Thursday.
Turkey recalled its ambassador in Egypt to return to Ankara in light of the crisis, a Turkish foreign ministry spokesperson said.
And Italy’s Foreign Minister Emma Bonino summoned Egypt’s ambassador in her country, Amr Mostafa Kamal Helmy, according to a statement in which the Italian ministry criticized the “force used by police (as) brutal, disproportionate and … not justifiable.”
The violence erupted as security forces raided pro-Morsy camps Wednesday after weeks of simmering tension. Clashes and gunfire broke out, leaving pools of blood and bodies strewn all over the streets.
Authorities bulldozed tents and escorted hundreds of people away. Some mothers and fathers managed to whisk away their children, gas masks on their faces.
The dead included cameraman Mick Deane, who’d worked for UK-based news channel Sky News for 15 years and for CNN before that.
Morsy supporters also reportedly attacked a number of Christian churches. It’s not clear how many were targeted, but Dalia Ziada, of the Ibn Khadun Center for Development Studies, said Thursday that the center had documented the burning of 29 churches and Coptic facilities across the country.
“This is horrible to happen in only one day,” she said.
The Bible Society of Egypt said 15 churches and three Christian schools had been attacked, some set on fire.
At least 84 people, including Muslim Brotherhood members, have been referred to military prosecutors for charges including murder and the burning of churches, the state-run EGYNews site reported.
Nile TV said another church was attacked Thursday in Fayoum, southwest of Cairo. The station said pro-Morsy protesters were responsible for the attack.
Meanwhile, Elerian, the senior Muslim Brotherhood member, said he’s not deterred by calls for his arrest.
“They can arrest me and 100 of us, but they can’t arrest every honorable citizen in Egypt,” Elerian told CNN Thursday. “They can’t stop this glorious revolution.”
The government’s state of emergency declaration mirrors the kind of stifling police state that the nation lived through under Mubarak, before the Egyptian people rose up in protests that resulted in his overthrow in 2011 and eventually Morsy’s rise to power as the country’s first democratically elected president.
Morsy’s rise, fall
But rather than uniting Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, divisions intensified during Morsy’s time as president.
Critics accused him of being authoritarian, trying to force the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic agenda on the country and failing to deliver freedom and justice.
Morsy’s supporters say the deposed president wasn’t given a fair chance and say his backers have been unfairly targeted for expressing their opinion.
Though Morsy has not appeared in public since he was taken into custody, his supporters have amassed on the streets nationwide to slam military leaders and demand his reinstatement.
Even Egypt’s interim government suffered a major setback after the raid.
Mohammed ElBaradei — a secular leader who was one of Morsy’s biggest critics — submitted his resignation Wednesday as vice president.
ElBaradei said he didn’t agree with the decisions carried out by the ruling government and “cannot be responsible for a single (drop of) blood.”